Sister M. Longina Caouette is considered retired in the technical sense of the word, but the reality is that she’s still hitting the books nearly every day for her community, the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus.
The 78-year-old serves as provincial treasurer, but her schedule still allows her to devote time to her crocheted and knitted creations, which will be featured at sisters’ Christmas market in December at St. Agnes Home in Kirkwood. She’s known within her community for making excellent pecan and pumpkin pies, too.
At Veronica House on the campus of The Sarah Community in Bridgeton, 102-year-old Sister Mary Frederick Keller maintains a ministry of prayer and presence among fellow residents. A longtime educator, the School Sister of Notre Dame stays active mending
clothing, enjoying crossword puzzles and visiting with other residents. In the past, she’s made altar linens for the chapel at The Sarah Community.
Both sisters exude a joyful presence within their vocations, even beyond what would be considered the retirement years. That’s because both understand their religious vocation is a lifelong commitment to God — something much more meaningful than just a job or a career.
“Religious life is not always an easy life,” Sister Longina said. “It’s like getting married. You’re taking vows. You have to work through and pray every day to be faithful. Religious life is not a career, it’s about a person. What are you here for? You’re here for a person: Jesus.”
The annual Retirement Fund for Religious helps support the cost of care for elderly religious women and men as they continue living their vocations in their later years. Parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis will take up a collection for the fund the weekend of Nov. 2-3. Proceeds go toward immediate eldercare expenses or are invested for future retirement needs. In 2018, Catholics around the country contributed more than $28 million to 360 religious communities.
Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis last year contributed more than $330,000. The National Religious Retirement Office, which administers the fund, sent more than $1.6 million to communities based in St. Louis to help care for elderly religious, who served for years on small stipends that mainly provided for living expenses.
Sister Marysia Weber, RSM, director of the archdiocesan Office of Consecrated Life, noted that religious communities helped to found the first hospitals, schools and churches in the archdiocese in the early 1800s, and were joined by many more communities who later came to serve the local Church. Their legacy continues in their services of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, she said.
“With the decline in vocations and the increasing age of their membership, many communities lack the financial resources to meet the health care and retirement needs of their aging members,” Sister Marysia said. “Each year, through the generosity of donors to the Retirement Fund for Religious appeal, the National Religious Retirement Office is able to distribute 94% of its donations to directly aid senior religious and their communities. We are most grateful for those who are able to offer assistance to these senior religious now in their time of need.”
God’s plan from the beginning
Sister Longina was raised in the small town of Greenville, New Hampshire. At the time, Greenville had many French-Canadian immigrants; Her parents originally were from Quebec, Canada. Sister Longina attended Catholic grade school, and later a few years at a Catholic high school, finishing at a public high school. After graduation, she spent several years in administrative work for a company in New Hampshire, and got an apartment with her sister.
The company made some cutbacks, so she headed to California, where an aunt and uncle lived. She got a job working for an insurance company, which happened to be right across the street from a Catholic church. She often visited church as she waited for the bus ride home.
“My Mom and Dad and everybody said I had a religious vocation, but at 18, you know, you say, ‘oh no, that’s too much,’” she said. Instead, she prayed to God that her sister would answer the call to a religious vocation. She eventually asked God to show her if He was calling her to religious life.
“One day while I was praying, a pigeon flew into my pew. I’d been going into that church all the time, and I had never seen anything like that. I thought, ‘OK Lord, I get the message.’”
She saw an advertisement in a newspaper for the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, and was attracted to their contemplative and apostolic life, serving children and the elderly. In 1965, she entered the community in San Diego, and made her first profession in 1968. Sister Longina joked that she thought she escaped having to go back to school, but she did just that, taking courses in bookkeeping, accounting and dietetics, as well as courses to earn her administrative license.
For 18 years, she served as the bookkeeper and head of the kitchen at the sisters’ home for the elderly in Corpus Christi, Texas, eventually becoming superior of the home. By the mid-1980s, she went back to California as a provincial assistant, taking on additional duties at the sisters’ home for the elderly there. She spent a total of 10 years there.
In 1995, the Carmelites opened a mission in Tibati, Cameroon. Because it’s a French-speaking country, Sister Longina volunteered to go. She and two other sisters helped run a day care, which was sponsored by a Catholic parish, for children ages 2-6. The pastor, who was from the Netherlands, had received donations to build a new facility for the day care, and they opened a building with three classrooms. The sisters also visited with prisoners and helped families in getting to the medical clinic. And of course, Sister Longina also helped with bookkeeping duties.
In 2014, Sister Longina developed health problems and she moved back to the United States, joining the sisters’ convent in Kirkwood. In addition to her service as provincial treasurer, she enjoys baking, handiwork and visiting with residents at St. Agnes Home. She often prays with them and leads a twice-monthly book discussion.
What she loves most about the Carmelites is “the loving concern for each person. And I love my prayer life. I get a chance to do more prayers now. That’s what I enjoy the most. I can sit in my chair and talk to God all I want to.”
With any vocation, Sister Longina said it’s important to recognize that God planned each one of us from the beginning. “And He knows what He wants of you,” she said. “And boy, He really hit me over the head.”
Part of a community
Sister Mary Frederick Keller entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame the fall after she graduated from high school. The native of Belleville, Ill., had been taught by School Sisters of Notre Dame at St. Peter’s Cathedral School, and later Notre Dame Academy, both in Belleville. She made her first profession in 1939. This year, she celebrates her 80th jubilee.
“I always loved school,” she said. “I guess I thought that if I joined the sisters, I’d be attached to a school one way or another all throughout my life.”
And attached she was, teaching math and science for more than 30 years at Rosati-Kain in St. Louis; Academy of Notre Dame in Belleville; St. Peter in St. Charles; and Notre Dame in Quincy, Illinois; St. Mary’s in Cape Girardeau, and Notre Dame High School in St. Louis. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and masters’ degrees in secondary education and physics from Saint Louis University.
From 1971-83, she served in congregational services at Villa Gesu retirement home in St. Louis, and on staff at the former Notre Dame College and Notre Dame High School in secretarial and finance roles. She continued in similar roles at Notre Dame High School in Quincy until 1995.
“For most of my teaching career, I could teach on the light side in the sense that I could make it enjoyable in the way I taught things or told a joke,” Sister Mary Frederick said. “We laughed a lot in my classes.”
She later served 11 years on staff at the Notre Dame Tutorial Center and School Sisters of Note Dame offices. In 2006, she moved to The Sarah Community in Bridgeton.
In addition to a ministry of prayer and presence, “here we make an effort to be helpful to people … in whatever way is open to us,” Sister Mary Frederick said. “I use a walker now, but some people they will push a person in the wheelchair or things like that. We have Mass every day which is very important.”
Sister Mary Frederick also enjoys working on crossword puzzles and mending clothing. In the past, she’s made altar linens and served as a sacristan for the chapel at The Sarah Community.
Above all, being part of a community is how Sister Mary Frederick enjoys living out her vocation. “We make a big thing about community, which needless to say we are very kind to each other, and we enjoy life with each other,” she said. “Whether that’s in a small community or a big place like this.”
>>Collection for retired religious
WHAT: The Retirement Fund for Religious supports the day-to-day care of elderly sisters, brothers and religious order priests, including the rising costs of health care, education for communities to care for their own elderly and more.
WHEN: Parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis will take up a second collection at Masses the weekend of Nov. 2-3.
MORE INFO: Visit the Retirement Fund for Religious; or contact (202) 541-3215 or [email protected]
>> Retirement Fund for Religious at a glance
• In 1988, Catholic bishops of the United States launched the Retirement Fund for Religious to address the significant lack of retirement funding for Catholic sisters, brothers, and priests in religious orders.
• For most of their lives, elder religious worked for little to no pay. There were no 401(k) plans or pensions.
• By 2029, religious past age 70 are projected to outnumber religious under age 70 by nearly three to one.
• There are 30,151 religious past age 70 living in the United States. In 2018, the average annual cost for their care was roughly $47,000 per person; skilled care averaged $69,000 per person.
• Since 2009, the annual cost to support senior women and men religious has exceeded $1 billion.
• Since 1989, almost $737 million has been distributed to support the day-to-day care of elderly sisters, brothers, and religious order priests. An additional $98 million has been allocated toward self-help projects initiated by religious communities, including collaborative health-care facilities.